Diary of An Engineer — The Clock Watcher

After watching Dream Big — a MacGillivary-Freeman documentary on the engineering profession, I looked back on my own 30+ years as an engineer and pondered the amazing places that I’ve been and some of the funny or interesting situations that I have experienced in this amazing career.

One such story had very little impact on the grand scheme of things, but it left me with a lasting impression of “engineeringness”. In the early 1990’s, The aerospace industry ground to a halt with the end of the Cold War so I started a small business providing mechanical EFX to the Hollywood movie industry. The thing about Hollywood is that it only has to work once — when the camera was rolling, nothing else matters. Oh, by the way, the lead time is always desperately short.

I got the call on a Tuesday that they were shooting a commercial on Friday and needed to film a “stop watch” for a Cadillac Northstar scene. The problem was that there was no camera small enough to catch real stop watch so we needed to build a big one — 3 feet in diameter — from scratch. The pay was around $5000.00. I had no idea how we would pull it off, but we were hungry and I just said, “Yes, we can do that”.

Fortunately, there is an artist or service for everything in Hollywood and we were able to find most of the pieces we needed — including the clock face and bubble. The face was perfect art right down to the 1/4 second graduations between each of the longer second lines.

The final piece was to go down to the electronics shop to get a stepper motor to simulate the 1/4 second staggering second hand of the stopwatch. The problem started when we discovered that there was no such thing as a stepper motor that stepped 240 SPM (steps per minute). All we could find was a 180 SPM stepper motor. This meant that our second hand would step 3 times between seconds instead of 4 as the clock face was clearly marked.

This was a big f’ing deal. This was a major close-up shot. The clock face was 3 ft in diameter — there was nothing subtle about this. It was Thursday night, holy crap! What where we going to do? We had already spent a bunch of money and we had to get paid. On the other hand, our contract never actually spelled this out…

So we showed up the next day to a studio buzzing with activity as they were filming several other scenes. I was trying not to shake too much as we set up our rig on a central stage. There were dozens of people running around, bright lights, at least 3 cameras — all rolled in to focus on our little prop. They even had fake wisps of smoke to simulate the shadows of clouds passing overhead. Everyone was looking directly at the clock face when the director shouted “ACTION”.

The next 45 seconds were sheer terror. Surely someone would notice the hand click 3 times instead of 4 — it was so obvious. We’ll never get away with this. We’ll be banished. Every imaginable worst-case scenario raced though my head. I was jolted from my internal turmoil by the Director shouting “CUT”. I knew it, we were busted!!… Then, just as quickly, they rolled back the cameras, turned off the smoke and the lights and everyone went on to something else.

We bolted as fast as we could, grabbing our check on the way out and deposited it at the nearest bank branch so it would clear before post-production. Wow, that was a close call.

The memory slowly faded until about 8 months later when I was watching TV in a crowded bar and up pops this commercial for the new Cadillac Northstar, sleek and modern taking on tight corners against the Great American Landscape. Then it came… I saw the clock and sure enough filling the whole screen was the second hand 1–2–3. Oh my god! millions of people were seeing this — did anyone ever notice?

25 years later, thanks to the modern invention of YouTube, I was able to find some of that footage.

At minute mark 2:13, you’ll briefly see the hand in this cut doing exactly 3 steps across 4 graduations. Who knew engineering could be so much fun.

If you are an engineer with a great story to tell, I invite you create your own “diary of an Engineer” post. We’ll archive them on the CoEngineers Blockchain for all eternity.



Daniel Robles, PE promotes blockchain technology for the decentralization of the Engineering Professions. Based in Seattle.

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Dan Robles

Daniel Robles, PE promotes blockchain technology for the decentralization of the Engineering Professions. Based in Seattle.